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Star of the Month on TCM: Robert Redford

Cary GrantTurner Classic Movies features writer, director, producer and movie star Robert Redford this month starting on Tuesday, January 6. From his appearance as the grim reaper on an episode of The Twilight Zone and in his movie debut in 1962, War Hunt, which kicks off TCM’s Star of the Month programming, to his more recent roles in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and An Unfinished Life, and all the hits in between, Mr. Redford gives a penetrating performance in nearly every picture. I am an unabashed admirer.

Standout star turns include his leading roles in The Sting (1973), an excellent movie, Three Days of the Condor, The Way We Were, and, in particular, the underestimated Jeremiah Johnson. I also can’t resist him in the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). All are mentioned, scheduled for airing or discussed in my exclusive interview about Robert Redford, who was once discussed for the role of John Galt in a screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with TCM host Robert Osborne (read the interview here). We talked about his appeal, his bad timing in Hollywood, his co-star Barbra Streisand and more in an examination of this elusive star’s extraordinary career.

The_Sting_1973_1001Besides his movie roles, I also recommend two of his movie directions, the thought-provoking ethical drama Quiz Show (1994) and an indelibly powerful 1980 motion picture from Paramount which I think is both misunderstood and one of the most psychologically complex and liberating films ever made: Ordinary People, which depicts a region I once knew well and dramatizes loss, grief, anger and the glory of recovering one’s self-esteem. I agree with Robert Osborne that Robert Redford is both iconic as a movie star and a deep and serious filmmaker. I encourage everyone to see as many of his films as possible this month on TCM.

Winter Workshops and Movies

RedfordTCMNowPlayingCoverJan2015Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host Robert Osborne talked to me about TCM’s first Star of the Month in the new year, Robert Redford, (read my exclusive interview here). I’ve interviewed the classic movie historian many times about movie stars and Hollywood and I think it’s one of our best. You be the judge and let me know what you think. I am an admirer of Mr. Redford’s movies, so I am excited that TCM is honoring Robert Redford. I’ve added some archived reviews of his films, too, including one of my favorites, An Unfinished Life (2005).

That picture is directed by my favorite working director, Lasse Hallström, whose recent movie The Hundred-Foot Journey (available on Blu-Ray this month) is his best work yet. If you want to feel good, really good, and you appreciate good food, family, friends and work, see this light, intelligent and enjoyable picture. Mr. Hallström’s films are cumulatively the closest I get to feeling like I’m being treated to a visual-intellectual feast, at least some that don’t insult or assault the mind or senses, and his best work reminds me of Hollywood legends Howard Hawks and Ernst Lubitsch in the sense of humor, playfulness and clarity. His new movie offers a vision of perfect harmony for the new year (read the review here).

I reviewed a few movies opening this Christmas. Unfortunately, Selma is not very good, though I wish it had been. Into the Woods, on the other hand, is very well done and recommended, especially for fans of the film musical and Stephen Sondheim. It’s not a romantic production, of course, like the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, which I prefer, but it is extremely thought-provoking and moving. The best movie coming out on Christmas Day is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a tense, utterly involving movie that every American ought to see, now more than ever. As I wrote this, Sony Pictures also announced plans to release The Interview in certain theaters on Christmas. While I have not had an opportunity to review it, I certainly support the Culver City, California studio, which is under attack from a dictatorship, and its right to create, release and profit from the picture.

Profiting from good production is the aim of several business workshops I plan to give in L.A. in the new year. The four-part series includes 90-minute workshops for artists, entrepreneurs and executives on fostering good public relations, branding, how to get new customers and success with social media. Each workshop adopts an interactive approach with visual display in a small classroom setting and space is limited, so reserve a seat soon by calling (818) 379-7000 (or click here) if you’re local to Los Angeles. Admission is $20 per workshop. The series is sponsored by The Valley Economic Alliance in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley (where classes are held). The series’ goal is to get you fit for business in the new year. Registration is also open for my 10-week course on social media, which has been expanded and added to Burbank Adult School‘s spring schedule. The communication course starts at 6:00 pm on Feb. 23 and continues on most following Monday nights. The course fee is $79 (a few dollars less if registering online or call (818) 558-4611 to enroll). Otherwise, whether you’re in Los Angeles, feel free to let me know if I can help. Use the Contact tab or read my Bio or about my Method above. I’m also on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

I’m catching up on reading, writing and other work, though I posted an interview with the writer and director of St. Vincent starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts, Theodore Melfi (read it here), and I plan to post a new filmmaker interview soon. First, I plan to spend some time with friends and family. Wishing you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Movie Review: Selma

SelmaPosterParamount’s Selma (opening on Christmas Day like Into the Woods and American Sniper) trivializes a pivotal moment in U.S. history. It’s a poorly made movie that grazes, and misses, key themes, contains good moments and more cringe-inducing scenes. Centered upon the prelude to sonorous black preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s march at Selma, Alabama, which galvanized whites’ support for Negroes’ individual rights in the face of police brutality and widespread injustice in the South, Selma, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey with Brad Pitt’s Plan B company (12 Years a Slave, World War Z) and directed by Ava DuVernay, reduces violent, gripping history to a speechified snoozefest.

The leading role is miscast. As the Reverend Dr. King, Jr., who moved people to principled action with his powerful words, David Oyelowo has no charisma. None of the passionate tones or soulful, sweat-breaking tensions are on display in his lackluster performance, though he does better in dialogue-driven scenes with his onscreen wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who is portrayed as more contemporary than the reserved Mrs. King. Other misfires include Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace in disastrous miscasting. Oprah Winfrey appears, too, yet again as a steely black woman, so the role’s less potent than it might have been. There are other cast problems, but the whole picture never comes together.

Given the source material, it certainly should, whether one remembers the era when blacks couldn’t vote in the South or not. “Whites only since 1855″, one despicable sign reads, subtly reminding the audience that this took place merely 100 years after the end of the American Civil War. American Negroes are beaten, murdered and executed by police and racist thugs and all of this begins to happen, thanks to Martin Luther King and his non-violent movement for civil rights, in plain sight of white Americans. In one powerful scene (not surprisingly, there are several), an idealistic young black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield, acting with his eyes) is beaten and shot to death. There are other, more infamous, acts of injustice depicted, too. Amid a behind-the-scenes structure that tries but never goes too deep, the most compelling aspect of King’s legacy depicted here is his adroit sense of activism, letting facts be put on display to speak for themselves. Lorraine Toussaint is excellent in scattered short scenes as Amelia Boynton Robinson, another Selma marcher who was beaten, but not without first speaking her mind that Negroes are the world’s first humans and innovators and should be aware of their ancestry. More than any other character, one sees in her face the determination to act in her self-interest and be treated as an individual with inalienable rights and, in this sense, the power in Selma‘s depiction applies to any activist who seeks justice, whether in a public protest against police brutality or a rally for the Tea Party.

With King alternating between his Georgia home and the oncoming Alabama confrontation, when he isn’t meeting President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, doing his best to add levity as LBJ in an unfairly written role) at the White House, and with more speeches than an awards ceremony, momentum slows to a crawl and never regains motion, let alone wider historical perspective. Other problems and drags include an appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) which noticeably omits that he represents the Nation of Islam and a reference to his assassination which omits that he was assassinated by black Moslems. An overromanticized New York Times reporter and end titles that cap the lives of activists-turned-career politicians such as John Lewis (Stephan James) and Andrew Young (Andre Holland) but omit lesser known activists such as Boynton do not help. Selma oversimplifies and underdramatizes history. The 2-hour plus movie feels artificial.

Tack on wasted performances by Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. and a closing rap track that makes a reference to “hands up” at “Ferguson”, which minimizes the meaning of what was achieved at Selma, and this is one half-baked movie. While there are signs of real talent here and there, including Ruth E. Carter’s costumes and a buried subtext applying King’s affirmation that “we can do this” to Johnson’s “we shall do this” which dovetails to King’s marriage, Selma is a lost opportunity. A great movie about achieving 20th century progress for blacks in America has yet to be made. Selma is an example of how not to do it.

 

Movie & Blu-Ray Edition Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

HundredFootJourney14 years after his triumphant Chocolat, Lasse Hallström returns to France for another delightful movie, this one themed with what the world needs now, harmony, and seasoned with lessons in aspiring to and achieving it. (Click on the image to buy the Blu-Ray).

Savoring every moment is the central theme of this brilliant and terribly underrated motion picture, co-produced by Juliet Blake with Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, in their first creative collaboration since The Color Purple (1985), made by DreamWorks and distributed by Disney. The credit goes chiefly to director Lasse Hallström, a masterful storyteller in every sense whose films – An Unfinished Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog, Casanova, The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News – are evocative and exceptional in both lightness and importance.

The Hundred-Foot Journey, based upon the book by Richard Morais with an adaptation by Steven Wright, is his grandest achievement. What superficially might be misconstrued as a tale of food, racism and multiculturalism is at root a story of starting over, trading values and the wonder that man, to paraphrase Ayn Rand, is a being of self-made soul. Indeed, most of the Objectivist virtues are contained herewith: pride, productiveness, honesty, integrity, rationality…and the whole story, arcing from a village in India to a village in France, begins in earnest with a wise old moneymaker in a trading place singling out an individual child and conferring upon him the status of “the boy who knows”. His name is Hassan (Manish Dayal as an adult) and how he integrates what he knows with what he remembers is unfurled in slow, sensuous loops.

What he knows is that food gives life. He learned this from his mother, a strong and mysterious woman who is killed in an act of arson (ignited by indeterminate political furor). Hassan the chef watches and learns, taking culinary skills from his mother’s recipes, as his family, led by Papa (Om Puri) hops from across Europe until the family’s minibus brakes fail on a hillside in France. Papa is headstrong, bent on tradition, and his struggle with Hassan is subtle, which allows The Hundred-Foot Journey to make multiple passages and back in a revolving, circular story. Though never explicit, and Mr. Hallström may not have had this intention, Papa takes knowledge on faith – faith in traditionalism – while his son Hassan thirsts for knowledge, has ambition and he goes by reason. What they share, spiritual belief in the memory of Hassan’s mother, bridges the distance.

This is not a father-son tale and soon the beguiling chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), who rescues the stranded Indian family and takes them in, and her boss, starch Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), are at the forefront of an intercultural conflict between patriarch and matriarch. When incorrigible Papa insists upon buying the property across from Madame’s Michelin-rated restaurant, the cooking contest is on. As Marguerite and Hassan fall in love, the French cuisine-snob Madame exploits regulations to shut down the new, Indian-flavored competition and the gruff father retaliates, playing exotic music and garish decorations to the hilt. The local farmer’s market is their battleground and, as the war ensues, things take a sinister turn when another traditionalist turns the fierce but amicable contest into something ugly.

Out of this difficulty lies opportunity, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, and Mirren’s Madame Mallory checks her premises, coming down on the side of chef Hassan, who is bloodied but unbowed and still pining for Marguerite. The mother-son mythology does another revolution, as so many life events, mistakes and twists do in The Hundred-Foot Journey, and again the prodigy earns a vaunted status by a wise old market master: “Arrogance,” the Frenchwoman exhorts in a combination of shock, thrill and admiration. Hassan accepts a new assignment to earn a just desert as he strives to earn a hand in partnership from Marguerite, who demands to be treated as an equal. All of this unfolds gently, with humor and with secondary characters, including the mayor and other villagers, stopping to appreciate rich, exotic and exquisite food.

Food is memory, the story’s mythology goes, shorthand for living in the moment as time passes and relationships change. Hassan goes to Paris in a third act that alters but expands the journey, as focus shifts to innovation in what amounts to an exciting and technological food laboratory, where scientists and chefs try, experiment and prepare the best of everything in a top notch studio. What to eat is elevated to an art and production is decidedly commercial, so, as he ascends, Hassan may yet master the art of commercialism. But what will become of those left behind? What happens to his family, his mentor and his memory? Will the legacy be lost when food is prepared to make money?

All is answered and brilliantly so without compromise in art or commerce. With an accent on exchanging values and the true meaning of partnership, including reciprocity in the deepest sense, The Hundred-Foot Journey, which accounts for the length between two worlds on a little road dividing two cultures, cuisines and locations—measuring the distance to reach one’s goal to love, to cook, to trade, to garnish, eat and dance—commences once again. It is done with deftness in depicting how people resist change even when it’s for the good, which underscores that acting in one’s self-interest, the virtue of selfishness, is the highest and hardest part of life. With androgynous, young lovers and obstinate elders, in mouth-watering scenes of Indian and French food, the fusion of an old-fashioned melting pot takes place. Lasse Hallström’s sauces and spices along dirt roads by a chateau near a village outside of Parisian lights are as magical as anything he’s made. Harmony hits the spot.


Blu-Ray

Four short features are entertaining, though the disc’s treat is the colorful, bursting movie itself. A general feature with most of the principals, including Mr. Hallström, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Helen Mirren and others in the cast is 15 minutes and it’s very good at deconstructing the film’s storybook aspects. This feature is best viewed after the movie. An eight-minute segment with Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey is the most interesting because Ms. Winfrey is so clearly uncomfortable sitting next to Mr. Spielberg as they discuss the film. It’s soon clear why as Steven Spielberg obviously gets that the movie is about human harmony—he makes a point to credit and discuss Lasse Hallström—whereas Oprah thinks it’s all about food. The Hundred-Foot Journey is their first artistic collaboration since The Color Purple in 1985. A feature on cooking cocoanut chicken is well done. “On Set with Oprah Winfrey” is as pretentious as its sounds. The Blu-Ray edition, which does not include a commentary track, is (chiefly for the movie) an excellent value. (Click on the image to buy the Blu-Ray).

Movie Review: Into the Woods

MV5BMTY4MzQ4OTY3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjM5MDI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Visually arresting and musically deep and inviting, Disney’s adaptation by Rob Marshall (Chicago) of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is mesmerizing in its own way. Though Meryl Streep (The Giver, Hope Springs, The Iron Lady) as the witch is occasionally distracting, the magic of maturing in the dark, bending and breaking woods flourishes in Marshall’s hands.

Intersecting stories of a baker and his barren wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), a boy and his mother (Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman), the witch and her daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), with Christine Baranski as the stepmother and Johnny Depp as the wolf, subtly blend in a kingdom with poignant, emotional songs and cinematic flair. The film, co-written and adapted for the screen by James Lapine, does Sondheim justice.

Layers of life lessons are woven, embedded and peeled away with humor, longing and cheer. That everything is packed into rhythmic and musical tales of a witch’s curse commanding a childless couple to find a white cow, a golden shoe, a blood-red cape and hair as yellow as corn in exchange for a child is an achievement. Pictures move, glow and draw the audience inward from the start, as grayness in the sky melds into something that is not as it first appears.

The theme that life is richer than cliches is well played, especially by Blunt, Pine and Ullman and the children, in particular, Huttlestone as an indefatigable boy named Jack, who is willing to be thought a fool and brave enough to pierce the sky. The whole contemplative storybook in song comes off with a wink at the camera, especially in the performance of “Agony”, with handsome brothers pining away for their lost maidens. With the witch twirling and zapping and giants stomping, not to mention a wolf ready to tear into plump young flesh, Disney does not soften the hard and knowing woods. The prospect of journeying into darkness to lighten one’s load is dramatized and made musical in shades of black, brown and midnight blue. Fans of the show will notice discrepancies, but the show’s core holds.

Arcing the scope of a lifetime, from birth to death and everything meaningful in between, and putting it to poetry, music and pictures, Rob Marshall knits fabled characters’ stories, doubts and insecurities into a pattern, bringing untethered single lives into a communion that cashes in on hard-earned lessons with heroism, affirmation and an outward, not weary, look at the world as it is. Into the Woods prowls and stalks the audience with cleverness in melody and words. It is meant to be savored by those who have been to darker places (who hasn’t?). At root, Into the Woods is an impeccable musical about finding goodness in what’s real and true, not in what’s fake and fantasy, and integrating fairy tales to urge the audience to think and get real is simply original and inspired.